Tag Archives: Fahrenheit 451

How the rabbit ears died

Nothing ages faster than a vision of the future. Re-read A Clockwork Orange today and you’re reminded of the Cold War, Harold Macmillan, and B.F. Skinner. Re-watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and you wonder whatever happened to Pan-Am airlines. Re-read Fahrenheit 451 and you find yourself explaining the concept of rabbit ears. 

Yeah, rabbit ears. Fahrenheit 451 was part of the summer reading list Dances With Mermaids brought home from school, so I got her a copy along with The October Country. Since she more or less lives with earbuds pumping dubstep directly into her brain, I derived some small amusement from mentioning Ray Bradbury’s image of people walling themselves off from the world with tiny “seashells” jammed into their ears. Then I remembered the scene in which Montag notices that the only house in his neighborhood where people are laughing and talking to each other is the one without a television antenna on the roof. And I found myself explaining to this child of the digital age how TV was once delivered into the living room through a roof antenna that looked like a deranged Erector Set project, or a pair of rabbit ears on top of the TV set, and that television reception was often a very iffy thing, apt to dissolve into a blizzard of static if the rabbit ears were improperly adjusted, or if somebody stepped back from the television after tweaking the controls like a safecracker. Even the way you sat affected reception on certain days. No wonder cable caught on so fast. I didn’t know from tai chi when I was a kid, but later on I instantly understood its purpose — an ancient Chinese technique for improving television reception.

I rattled on about all this, even throwing in a mention of the Peanuts comic strip sequence in which Charlie Brown has Snoopy stand on his TV and move his ears to clear up the picture. Then I caught the distant look in her eye, the look of a teenager who knows that if she waits long enough, Daddy will run out of oxygen and she will be able to leap free of the Old School Time Machine Tour. I do go on sometimes.

I was thinking of showing her some episodes of The Outer Limits, but I wonder what she would make of the intro, and the idea of someone else controlling the sacred vertical and the sanctified horizontal. The course of one’s evening TV viewing used to hang on those two pegs.

Maybe I just won’t worry about it. One of those tempus fugit things.

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Ray Bradbury

If you could study the mind of any lifelong, dedicated reader, I bet you would find an early encounter with the stories of Ray Bradbury way back there in the intellectual DNA. Mention his name to a member of that happy clan and you’ll see a little spark in the eyes that suggests memories of winter landscapes briefly turned to summer by a rocket launch, stained glass windows with colors that reveal alternate universes, mechanized houses kept spotlessly clean for occupants who will never return, and foghorns visited by lonely dinosaurs. Ray Bradbury, who just died at 91, was a magician, and anyone who encountered him at the right age was forever marked.

I couldn’t imagine my crucial reading years without him. Talk about happy accidents! I came to his work by way of Francois Truffaut’s bungled film version of Fahrenheit 451, which was shown on television quite often while I was a boy obsessed with monsters and science fiction. (I can only imagine what Bradbury, a lifelong technophobe who despised TV, would have made of that connection.) After reading the novel I came across the story collection The October Country, and fell into Bradbury’s alternate universe, an idealized but not entirely benign small-town Midwest where the colors were a little brighter and the shadows a little darker. I snapped up other titles in short order: The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, S Is For Space. Though the novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes have their admirers, I always  thought Bradbury (like Hemingway, a key influence) worked best in short forms. The magic was most effective in concentrated doses.

Bradbury lived a long happy life, with no shortage of admirers (some of whom probably startled him a bit), and he kept writing up to the end. Thanks to early praise from literary heavyweights, he spent his career outside the “Sci-Fi Guy” corral that penned in so many other writers. Bradbury himself preferred to call his work fantasy, but that didn’t keep him out of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and he was one of the first writers honored by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in its series of tribute issues.   

Appropriately for a writer, Bradbury penned his own best epitaph, in the 2005 collection Bradbury Speaks:

In my later years I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back. Occasionally I wonder why I can be so happy. The answer is that every day of my life I’ve worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating. The image in my mirror is not optimistic, but the result of optimal behavior.

ADDENDUM: President Obama pays tribute to Ray Bradbury.

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Golly gee, Mr. B

I’ve already explained the concept of a Bernstein moment. Maybe what occurred to me the other day on the train home should be called a Bradbury moment.

It’s all because I recently re-read Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future society in which books and reading are strictly forbidden, but the noisier forms of mass media are all but required. Bradbury’s chief target was television, then still becoming a household fixture when the novel was published in 1953, but his wrath also encompassed transistor radios, which he saw as creating a wall of noise to keep out the real world. Early in the book, the protagnist comes home and anticipates an empty evening with his vapid wife:

Without turning on the light he imagined how this room would look. His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like a body displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.  

Trouble is, I was listening to my iPod when this scene occurred to me. I wasn’t wearing Seashells, but imagine the sport Bradbury could have had with the spectacle of people marching down the street with earbuds trailing wires like tendrils from potatoes left too long in the bag.

Does this make me one of the bad guys, Mr. B? Do I get any credit for listening to Melvyn Bragg on my iPod?

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Hot type

fahrenheitI’ve been hearing rumors for years now about plans for a new film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Mystery Man on Film has read a copy of Frank Darabont’s script, and while he hasn’t yet posted the whole thing, his descriptions of some of the choicer bits make me hungry to see the movie get made right away.  

His post also sent me back to re-read the Bradbury novel, which I hadn’t opened in decades. It’s still great stuff, certainly Bradbury’s finest novel, and as Mystery Man points out, far more cinematic in its imagery than the inept 1966 movie version directed by Francois Truffaut. It’s also remarkably concise and intensely imagined — particularly when compared with Bradbury’s increasingly blowsy later work. 

I have to give the movie some props, if only because it’s the reason I started reading Bradbury in the first place. Truffaut’s film cropped up on TV fairly often, and as a young reader in non-bookish circumstances I was gripped by the idea of getting by in a society than bans reading and routinely destroys books. I think I was in the sixth grade when I first read Fahrenheit 451, drawn to it because I’d seen the movie so many times by then, and it led me to The October Country, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun and the rest of Bradbury’s core titles. The funny thing is, even then I saw no attraction in becoming one of the Book People — how on earth could anyone decide on which single book to memorize and keep close?

Looking back, I think I was mainly held by the movie’s soundtrack, which was composed by Bernard Herrmann, whom Bradbury had recommended to Truffaut (not that Monsieur Auteur would have needed much encouragement to hire Alfred Hitchcock’s former right-hand man). Herrmann conceived a dreamy, mostly unfocused score that suggested a society held in a kind of permanent childhood by enforced illiteracy, yet still tormented by adult doubts and fear. It’s pretty much the only aspect of the film that still works, and it makes the final scene with the Book People one of the most rapturously beautiful sequences in film.      

For a while the rumor was that Mel Gibson wanted to play Guy Montag, the book-burning fireman who becomes consumed by the desire to read, but I think the role calls for someone like Viggo Mortensen who can suggest deep currents of thought beneath an impassive exterior. Either way, let somebody make the movie, soon. And meanwhile, you can re-read Bradbury’s novel — talk about a win-win scenario.

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A dime at a time

Ray Bradbury has always been a pretty poor interview subject, even more so as age advances. This talk with Bradbury at Truthdig has some interesting tidbits, assuming you have the patience to sift through all the random crankery. It certainly pointed me to areas I hadn’t known about: e.g., the story of how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rental typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Lawrence Clark Powell Library, pumping in dimes at regular intervals for nine days. And I never realized how big a debt Arnold Schwarzenegger owes to Bradbury.

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